Canmore cross-country skier wants Canada Winter Games debut to inspire young girls

Sabine Comeau wants to use her success as a way to inspire young women to stay in sports. She also wants to raise awareness of what participation can bring to their lives.

Sabine Comeau, 17, says many of her female peers have left cross-country skiing

A woman glides down a hill on skis with a smile on her face.
Sabine Comeau skis at the Canmore Nordic Ski Club. She will take her skills to P.E.I. this month to compete in the Canada Winter Games. (Jo Horwood/CBC)

A 17-year-old cross-country skier from Canmore is headed to her first ever Canada Winter Games, a national competition held every four years.

Sabine Comeau will compete on Team Alberta alongside more than 3,000 athletes from across the country later this month.

It's a huge accomplishment for Comeau, who fell in love with the sport at a young age and is slowly rising up the ranks. But unfortunately, Comeau said, many of her friends and fellow cross-country skiers, who started with her years ago, won't be at her side.

"There was probably about 15 of us when I was really young, and then as we continued to get older and older, more and more people just weren't into it anymore," she said.

"I was slowly losing my community."

The loss of friends was hard for training, Comeau said, as it's a lot easier to make it through tough days when you have a companion by your side.

But she said the loss of women more generally in the sport is concerning. 

"I'm just thinking of the next young me that is losing her community as we speak and is just feeling lost and lonely and thinking about whether or not they should just follow that path and quit as well."

A young woman looks into a camera.
Sabine Comeau says she also enjoys the mental toughness cross-country skiing provides. (Jo Horwood/CBC)

According to a 2020 report put out by Canadian Women and Sport — an advocacy organization promoting equitable and inclusive sport in Canada, funded by the federal government — one in three girls drops out of sports across adolescence compared to one in 10 boys. 

The number of boys who participate in sport also decreases as they get older, the report shows, but not by as large a margin as girls and not as fast through their teenage years.

Comeau wants to use her position on Team Alberta as a way to inspire young women to stay in sports. She also wants to raise awareness of what participation can bring to their lives.

For her, that's balance, resilience and an appreciation for hard work.

"If you are done with the competitive aspect, that's completely OK and completely understandable," she said. 

"But I would urge everyone to try to continue to stay in some sort of sport because I think the social and mental and physical benefits are great."

Importance of role models

Another athlete, Chandra Crawford, helped to inspire Comeau's love of cross-country skiing. 

Among her career highlights, Crawford — who is from Canmore but now lives in Calgary — won a gold medal in cross-country skiing at the 2006 Olympic Games in Turin, Italy, and two World Cup gold medals.

She's also the founder of Fast and Female, a Canadian charity aimed at keeping young girls in sports. She started it 17 years ago after realizing, similar to Comeau, girls were moving toward the sidelines. 

"From the time girls are little … you're just steeped in stereotypes and everyone saying you're pretty and you're kind, and everyone saying to the boys you're fierce and tough," she said.

"It just translates over millions of billions of messages into understanding what is for girls and what is not."

A woman skis ahead of competitors with a look of determination on her face.
Chandra Crawford competes at the 2006 Olympic Games in Turin, Italy. (Submitted by Chandra Crawford)

A key to getting girls inspired is role models, Crawford said. For her, it was Sara Renner, another Canadian cross-country skier and Olympic silver medallist. 

"A relatable role model, someone who has a life circumstance like you," she said. "Women from their community, from all walks of life that can show what it means to be strong, that there aren't these narrow stereotypes that we have to adhere to."

Feelings of belonging

The Canadian Women and Sport report also references ethnicity, income and parents' participation as some of the factors influencing girls' participation in sports. 

Many also deal with low confidence and feelings they don't belong. Crawford says there are ways to combat these factors. 

"We're looking at safe sport. We're looking at how sports systems are not diverse, equitable, inclusive," she said. 

"Girls are different than boys. We need to know that we belong in order to try…. So that's really the message for us parents. Social, belonging, friends, fun."

WATCH | Chandra Crawford's journey to create Fast and Female:

Chandra Crawford saw the hurdles female athletes faced, and did something about it

2 years ago
Duration 10:31
Cross-country skier Chandra Crawford went to three Olympic games, winning gold at Turin 2006. But during her career she noticed a lack of representation, exposure and support for female athletes. So 15 years ago she created the charity Fast and Female with the goal to keep self-identified girls aged 8-14 healthy and active in sports.

Today, Crawford doesn't play an active role in the Fast and Female organization. 

She made a decision to step back to raise her four young children. She's still a fierce advocate for the cause, and she's taking many of these lessons to heart as she raises two daughters of her own.

The benefits of participating in sport are too important to ignore, she said.

"Sport gives so much resiliency, so much ability to learn how to bounce back from failure. Be part of a team," she said.

A woman skis across the snow at Canmore Nordic Ski Club.
Comeau's first event at the Canada Winter Games happens Feb. 28 at 7 a.m. MT. (Jo Horwood/CBC)

But as Crawford takes a step back, Comeau is taking a step forward.

She's now on Fast and Female's youth advisory council, which allows her to meet women involved in sports from across the country. It's helped to combat some of the loneliness she's felt, finding other like-minded women who want to build up young girls.

Eventually, Comeau hopes to be a role model for someone else.

"I would tell them that they can find a community in a different way and that it's worth continuing on with it."

The Canada Winter Games happen Feb. 18 to March 5 on Prince Edward Island. Comeau starts her competitions on Feb. 28.

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